Treats! The very word conjures up a guilty pleasure, so how on earth can you treat responsibly? The whole point about treating is that it constitutes a reward for something, but this doesn’t mean it should always be an indulgent food choice. We all know the delight of a purring cat winding around our legs for the promise of a prized morsel, but how much is too much? And what constitutes a healthy treat? If indeed such a thing exists….
The easiest way to look at the different types of treats available is to sub-divide them into categories:
1. Everyday Treats
- These are food treats that are generally used for training purposes and to reward everyday good behaviour. They come in a huge array of different sizes, shapes, textures, flavours and formats from tiny morsels of dried liver to crunchy biscuits. This is because your cat may be the type to lick all the coating off a treat first, deriving intense pleasure from the flavour alone or she may revel in the way it feels in her mouth.
2. Occasional Treats
- These are otherwise known as ‘high value’ treats. In an ideal world your cat should know that she needs to work extra hard to get one of these and they are definitely not ‘everyday’ treats. However as we all know, cats are masters at expressing their desires and as indulgent owners all too often we’re willing to comply with their demands!
3. Non-Food Treats
- As difficult as it may be to understand, not all treats have to constitute food items. We commonly provide treats to express our love and more often than not are rewarded with a positive interaction from our feline friend. This is just as achievable without food:
- • We have instant comfy beds to offer in the form of a warm lap
- • We have hands and fingers to rub behind ears and under the chin plus anywhere else our cat enjoys
- • We also have use of our voices to communicate with
- The wonderful effect of providing these non-food treats is that as well as rewarding your feline friend; they also reward you and strengthen the emotional bond you share together.
If we choose to give food treats, then how do we find the right balance to maintain good nutritional health and reward our feline friends at the same time?
How much is too much?
No matter what type of treat you choose it will contain calories and these calories need to be accounted for in your cat’s total food intake to avoid weight gain. The general rule of thumb when giving treats is to keep well below 10% of your cat’s recommended total daily food intake. If treats account for more than this, it can lead to obesity along with any or all of the associated health conditions, as well as a prematurely reduced lifespan. In addition to these risks, excess treating can also contribute to nutritional imbalance in the form of individual nutrient deficiencies or excesses. To achieve the right balance when giving food treats, it’s vitally important to ensure your cat receives a good quality complete and balanced main diet that comprises at least 90% of their total food intake.
Recent years have seen an explosion in the availability of treats with different types of health claims. We’re all familiar with the concept of feeding a treat specifically designed to promote oral health, but how effective are these? They may include enzyme systems and coatings, as well as specific shapes designed to abrade plaque and remove food fragments from around the teeth. However, the best way to truly support good oral hygiene is to ensure you brush your cat’s teeth on a daily basis with an appropriately designed toothbrush and suitably tasty toothpaste e.g. fish or liver flavour.
Other treats with health benefit claims include those for conditions such as arthritis or more simply with added vitamins and minerals. Typically these will have supplements that are claimed to help combat inflammation and ease joint pain or that provide additional sources of functional ingredients such as antioxidants. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence and some good scientific evidence on the efficacy of such ingredients, but much will rely on the quantity eaten and the ability of the supplement to actually reach its target in the body system.
Treats for Training
Key to deciding when to treat is understanding that your cat should regard it as a reward. Treats are a great way to achieve this when paired with fun and fitness. Contrary to popular belief, cats are very trainable and indoor cats in particular can become quite expert at agility exercises. You can help your cat exercise both their bodies and their brains by using food treats to reward them as they learn agility exercises or even solve mind puzzles.
Treats are a great way to reinforce positive behaviour and to help strengthen the social and emotional bond you share with your cat, but they can also lead to an increased risk for obesity. The low calorie and cost option plus the most rewarding for both you and your cat, is to treat responsibly and make good use of the non-food category.